The Role of Social Computing Technologies in Grassroots Movement Building

Grassroots social movement organizing is becoming increasingly dependent on communication technologies. In this paper, we ask: How can social computing systems support grassroots organizations in facilitating collective action through democratic participation? We did action research with Science for the People-Atlanta, both participating in the organization, making technology for and with them, and also studying their use of technology as they build up a grassroots movement. SftP-Atlanta is a social movement organization dedicated to building a grassroots movement around science activism.

The Atlanta chapter of Science for the People is a part of a broader national movement around radical practice of scientific research. SftP-Atlanta is built on a local community of scientists, researchers, and science enthusiasts. They all came together with the shared belief that scientific reasoning could be an extremely powerful tool to resist injustice. They believe activating scientific discourse among public would not happen without a re-imagination of the practice of science for the causes of social justice. Following the core values of SftP, the local chapter in Atlanta built their identity around a practice of science-activism that is inclusive, participatory, and accessible. Their plan of collective action toward this goal includes both short-term and long-term advocacy work. While their short-term collective action includes both taking part in activist events happening in and around Atlanta as well as organizing public-facing events to advocate for their cause of science-activism, their long-term collective action is a step-by-step process that was informed by methods of community-centered research.  

Grassroots movements are assumed to have spontaneous growth; however, from our research and experience in SftP-Atlanta we understand that this process requires intense planning and collaboration among all members. In SftP-Atlanta this collaborative process was supported by a combination of social and technological networks. SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical ecosystem is not monolithic, it is a complex infrastructure consisting of several online platforms (Google Tools, Slack, Facebook, the web platform that we co-designed), offline networks (bi-weekly meetings), volunteer activists, local norms and values, etc. Our investigation of the existing sociotechnical practices of SftP-Atlanta reveals that while the social computing technologies they chose to use served some of the instrumental purpose, they often lacked the social, moral, and political alignment with the causes of grassroots organizing. That is to say, while technologies were chosen with an expectation of being an “efficient” solution to some practical problems, the very choice of certain social computing technologies introduced new power relationships within the organization that were perceived as antithetical to the philosophical beliefs of the organization.

In this paper, we use Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of social action and the model of participatory communication theory inspired by Freire to make sense of the movement-building process of SftP-Atlanta. Freirean model provides a three-step, iterative process for sustainable movement building: forming a collective identity, moving toward collective action, and engaging in reflexive dialog. We analyze both the perceived strengths and weaknesses of SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical practices in supporting the organization as they iteratively go through the phases of the Freirean model.

For instance, in the collective identity phase Google Drive was useful for the ten core members of the group who were researchers in different institutions. As the group grew and became more and more heterogeneous with different people with different comfort of technology, many members started feeling like Slack favored people who chose the platform to be used because they were already using slack for their jobs and excluded people who were not as proficient with technology which ended up reinforcing the already existing power dynamic within the organization leading to a conflicted identity. In the collective action phase, a task management feature of Slack was liked by many members that gave them a feeling of accomplishing something tangible. On the other hand in this same phase, when many events were being organized by SftP-Atlanta members shared how they weren’t comfortable with Facebook being the primary medium for events since their participation in the events were being broadcasted to their professional networks that they would not choose to share this information with. Finally in the reflex dialog phase, members pointed out how decision making through Slack was not sufficient since it did not adequately support the kind of transparency that a participatory decision making requires and as discovered in the identity phase it did not end up supporting the kind of equitable democracy SftP-Atlanta wanted to become. Our analysis of these tensions led us to identify inclusivity, privacy/security, and social translucence as three values desirable for sociotechnical practices of grassroots organizing.

With social movement organizing becoming increasingly dependent on social computing technologies (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, etc.) that were built with commercial values in mind, these conflicts become a default reality of movement building. However, these conflicts come with consequences that are not just ideological but also practical: how can a group democratically decide on issues when the decision-making tool that is supposed to facilitate that process disproportionately favors people who are more comfortable with technology? In our work, we provide a way of understanding and working around conflicts that may exist within the sociotechnical ecosystem of grassroots social movements.

You can read the entire paper here: (paywalled)

If you cannot access the paper from the above link, here is a freely downloadable preprint:

অপ্রেমের কাব্য

তোর সাথে আমার আলাপ কবে বা কিকরে কিছুতেই মনে পড়ে না। তোকে যখন ভাবি তখন কেবল তোর বড় বড় চোখদুটো মনে পড়ে – আর মনে পড়লে মনে হয় ঐ চোখ দুটোর সাথে আমার অনেক দিনের পরিচিতি। তোর চোখের সাথে আমার এই পরিচয়ের কোনও উল্লেখযোগ্য অতীত মনে পড়ে না – খালি মনে হয় – ওরা ছিল।

তোকে আমার এই চিঠি প্রেমের চিঠি। এখন দারুণ অপ্রেমের দিন। এইসব ঘোর অসময়ে মনে হয়, প্রেমের চিঠি একমাত্র তাকেই লেখা যায়, যার শরীরে অফুরান দয়া।

দয়া শব্দটা অদ্ভুত। বা হয়ত বাংলা ভাষাতে এই শব্দের এক অদ্ভুত প্রয়োগ ঘটেছে সর্বদা।  প্রভু তার ভৃত্য কে দয়া করেন। জমিদারের দয়ার উপর নির্ভর করে চাষির জীবন। গৃহিণীর দয়াতে জলখবার জোটে বাড়ির কাজের লোকের। তাও রোজ খাবার পেলে “ওদের” অভ্যেস খারাপ হয়ে যাবে, তাই পি সি চন্দ্রের নতুন স্কিমে তিন লক্ষ টাকা হেলায় দান করে এসে, সেই দয়ার পাটিগণিত কষতে হয় গিন্নিমাকে। আর দয়া করেন ভগবান তার ভক্তকে। আমার সীমিত ভাষাজ্ঞানে এবং অনুভবে লক্ষ্য করেছি দয়ার প্রবাহ মূলত একমুখীন – ক্ষমতাবানের ইচ্ছানুযায়ী, ক্ষমতার থেকে ক্ষমতাহীনের দিকে।

অথচ আমার আস্থা অন্য এক প্রকারের দয়াতে – ভাঙ্গাচোরা নারীদেহের দয়া। এ এক অদ্ভুত সঞ্জীবনী। এই দয়াকে সাহিত্যে লেখা হয় না, ইতিহাসে এর নাম পরাজয়। বছর দুই আগের এক দুপুরের কথা, তুই মনে করালি কত কত বছরের পর সেইদিন আমাদের কথা হচ্ছে। বললি, “ও আমাকে এখনোও ফোন করে জানো। মদ খেয়ে। ওর নতুন বান্ধবীর সাথে ঝগড়া হলে। ভোর সাড়ে চারটের সময় ফোন করে কাঁদে।” সেদিন তোর গলায় যে কষ্ট ছিল সেটা আমি আমার মধ্যে টের পাচ্ছিলাম – টের পাচ্ছিলাম আমার কানের লতিতে, ঠোঁটের কোণায়, বাম উরুতে, ডান স্তনে।

ভালবাসার অন্য নাম ক্ষয়? প্রতিটা নারী শরীরই কি আসলে শরীরের ধ্বংসাবশেষ ?

আমি তোকে সেসব না বলে জিগ্যস করেছিলাম, “তুই ফোন ধরিস কেন?”

তুই বলেছিলি, “কি করব বল? বুঝতে পারি ও কষ্টে আছে”

আমার আস্থা এই বেহিসেবি দয়াতে।

আমি আমার ছিন্নভিন্ন শরীর নিয়ে বসছি ইতিহাসের কাছে। ইতিহাসের এই ময়দানে পুরুষতন্ত্রের কাছে নারী শরীরের বারংবার পরাজয়। আমি প্রতিটি পরাভূত নারীর ঘন লোমে আস্থা রাখছি। আস্থা রাখছি বন্ধ্যা নারী শরীরের মাতৃত্বে, অগোছালো শাড়ীর নীচে পুরুষাঙ্গের গ্লানিতে, স্কুল-ফেরতা যে মেয়েটি কোনওরকমে ঢাকার চেষ্টা করছে নীল স্কার্টে  রক্তের দাগ, আমি আস্থা রাখছি তার আত্মবিশ্বাসে। আমার বিশ্বাস আমাদের এই অপ্রেমের কাব্যে।

এরপর হয়তো আমাদের হঠাৎ দেখা হবে কোনও মিছিলে। অসংখ্য মানুষের মুখ আর মুখোশ পেরিয়ে আমি খুঁজে নেব পরিচিত দুটো চোখ। মানুষের মুক্তির আকুল স্লোগানে গমগম করবে কলেজস্ট্রিট, আর সেইসব কোলাহলের মাঝেই ঘটে যাবে আমাদের গোপন সম্মেলন। ক্ষমতার বিরুদ্ধে অন্তিম সংঘর্ষে ঝাঁপিয়ে পড়ার ঠিক আগের মুহূর্তে, সখী, আমি তোকে জানিয়ে যেতে চাই বিপ্লবের কাছে আমার গোপনতম দাবীটুকু – একদিন, কোনও এক অসহায় রাত্রে, আমরা নিজেদের জন্যেও বরাদ্দ রাখতে পারব কিছুটা দয়া। সেইদিন, ইনশাল্লাহ, আমরা ঠিক ফোন কেটে ঘুমিয়ে পড়তে পারব পাশ ফিরে।

যে সব তুচ্ছ কারণে বেঁচে থাকা

যার কথা মনে পড়ার বিশেষ কোনও কারণ নেই, তার কথা মনে পড়ছে। বহুযুগ পরে তার গলার আওয়াজ শুনি সপ্তাহ দুই আগে। কথায় কথায় বলি, “খুব বেশিদিন বেঁচে থাকার কোনও কারণ দেখছি না।”

এটা কিছু নতুন নয়, সে নিজেও বহুবার জানিয়েছে তার জেলে যাবার পরিকল্পনা, উচ্চারণ করেছে আত্মহত্যার কথা। মৃত্যুকে নিয়ে আমরা দুজনেই বরাবর একটা আপাত বস্তুবাদী আবেগ থেকে আলোচনা করেছি। এটা লিখতে গিয়ে মনে হলো – বস্তুবাদী আবেগ বলে আদৌ কিছু হয় কিনা, হলেও তার কোনও তাত্বিক সংজ্ঞা আমার জানা নেই। তবু, এই যে যার কথা আজ মনে পড়ার কোনও কারণ ছিল না, তার সাথে আমার অনেক আলাপচারীতাকেই এই শব্দবিন্যাস দিয়ে বর্ণনা করা যায় বলে মনে হয়।

যার কথা মনে পড়ার কোনও কারণই নেই, সেই সে, তার অভ্যাসগত নাটকীয় ভঙ্গিতে বলে উঠল, “জানিনা সুচেতা। তোমার বাড়িতে যেদিন প্রথম গিয়েছিলাম তোমার সাথে আলাপ করতে, সেদিন তুমি একটা হলদে জামা পড়েছিলে। খানিক আলাপের পর আমাকে জিগ্যেস করলে আমি তোমার কাছে কাঁদতে পারব কিনা। আমাদের আলাপের মিনিট কুড়ির মধ্যে এই প্রশ্নটা তুমি করলে। আর আমিও বলে ফেললামঃ হ্যাঁ, পারবো। যখন মৃত্যুর কথা ভাবি তখন ওই মুহূর্তটার কথা মনে পড়ে। এই বিশাল পৃথিবীর অনন্ত কালের ইতিহাসের কাছে ঐ মুহূর্তটা কতটুকু ? অথচ মনে হয় এইরকম সব তুচ্ছ ঘটনার জন্যই বোধহয় মানুষ বেঁচে থাকে।”

এর সপ্তাহ দুয়েক পরে আমি সাইকায়াট্রিস্টের ঘরে পৌঁছই। বড় বড় জানলা দিয়ে প্রথম বিশ্বের নিরিবিলি পথঘাট দেখা যাচ্ছে। যা দেখলে মনে হয় এই পৃথিবীর একমাত্র সত্য হল পরিপাটি করে কাটা ঘাস আর রেশমের মত চকচকে রাস্তাঘাট। সেইসব মিথ্যের থেকে চোখ সরিয়ে নিয়ে আমি আমার অগোছালো তৃতীয় বিশ্বের যাপন উজাড় করে দিচ্ছি একজন সম্পূর্ণ অপিরচিত মানুষের কাছে।  হাসপাতালে তার পদ কেয়ার কোওরডিনেটর। তার চোখ, মুখ, গায়ের রং, ময়লা রঙের শার্ট সবকিছু থেকে ঝরে পড়ছে সহমর্মিতা।  অনেকক্ষণ জলে ডোবা মানুষ বাতাসের সংস্পর্শে এলে যে ভাবে বেঁচে ওঠে, আমি তার সেই মায়াময় মুখের দিকে তাকিয়ে বিরামহীন বর্ণনা করে যাচ্ছি আমার জীবন, বীভৎস সব ভাবনা, রাতের পর রাত ঘুম না আসা, ভুতের ভয়, জেগে থাকার প্রতিটা মুহূর্তে আঘাতের ভয়, প্রেম, অপ্রেম, যাবতীয় দুঃস্বপ্ন যার থেকে পালাতে পালাতেই আমি তার ঘরের কোণার এই সোফাতে আপয়েন্টমেন্ট নিয়েছি। সে আমকে জিগ্যেস করল আমার শরীরের ইতিহাস, আমি তাকে বলছি নিজের শরীরের উপর অধিকার হারানোর ইতিহাস। বলতে বলতে হঠাৎ থমকে যাই, “I don’t know if I can call this one an assault”। কেয়ার কোওরডিনেটর এতক্ষণ নোট নিচ্ছিলেন, তার কলম থামিয়ে তিনি এবার আমার দিকে তাকালেন; কি গভীর, দৃঢ়, অথচ মায়াময় তার চাহনি। আমাকে খানিক সময় দিলেন বিবেচনা করতে – নির্যাতনের দায় কার হয়? নির্যাতনের সংজ্ঞা কি? Assault এর বাংলা কি নির্যাতন? আমার sexual assault এর ইতিহাস, অধিকারহীনতার ইতিহাস, আতঙ্কের ইতিহাস, অসুখের ইতিহাস, আমার শরীরের ইতিহাসের কথা আমি কেন ইংরিজিতে ভাবি, কেন বাংলাতে না?

কেয়ার কোওরডিনেটর হয়তো আমার হতাশা আন্দাজ করতে পারেন। আমার মনোযোগ ফেরাতে কলমের ঢাকনা বন্ধ করেন, অথবা আমার নৈঃশব্দ্য এতটাই অসহনীয় হয়ে উঠেছিল যে কলমের সামান্য শব্দে প্রাণ ফিরে পাই।  আমার দিকে তার সেই সহজ, শান্ত, মায়াময় চাহনি অবিচল রেখে তিনি বলেন, “if it felt like an assault, it was an assault”।

যার কথা একেবারেই অপ্রাসঙ্গিক সেই তার কথা মনে পড়ে যায় – এইসব তুচ্ছ মুহূর্তের কাছে হঠাৎ একদিন আত্মসমর্পণ করব বলেই আমাদের এই বেঁচে থাকা। আমি কেঁদে ফেলি, আমাদের আলাপের মিনিট কুড়ির মধ্যে একজন সম্পূর্ণ অপরিচিত আত্মীয়ার কাছে।



এই যে বেঁচে আছি, এর থেকে আজগুবি ব্যাপার আর হয় না। মরে যাওয়া এর থেকে ঢের বেশি স্থায়ী আর বিশ্বাসযোগ্য। সত্যি কথাটা হলো গত একবছরে লাইন দিয়ে মানুষেরা মরে গেছে। এইটা দারুণ সত্যি কথা হলো। তার আগেও পাল পাল লোক রোজ অদৃশ্য হয়েছে, কিন্তু আমি তো কখনওই তাদের পাশে বসে চা আর প্রজাপতি বিস্কুট খাইনি। কখনোও সময় হয়ে ওঠেনি, কখনোও অস্তিত্ব। এই যেমন কোপারনিকাস যেদিন মারা গেল সেদিন আমার অস্তিত্ব হয়ে ওঠেনি, হাতে সময়ও যে অঢেল ছিল এমন নয়। অস্তিত্বের আগেও তো ব্যস্ততা থাকে, ঠিক মত না থাকতে পারা আয়ত্ব করতে হয়। রেওয়াজ করতে হয়। আসল কথাটা হলো আমি সেদিন হেঁইও হেঁইও করে না থাকা প্রাক্টিস করছিলাম। একেবারে আসল কথা হলো এইটুকুই।

গত শতাব্দীর যে মাহেন্দ্রক্ষণে এই চিঠিটা লিখেছিলাম, সেই ক্ষণ কবে লোপাট হয়েছে। আমিও সেদিনের পর থেকে খোলস পাল্টেই চলেছি। স্টেশনে নেমে পড়ার পর ট্রেনটার দিকেও তাকাইনি, আমি তাকাইনা। কোনোও যাত্রার দিকেই বেশিক্ষণ তাকাতে নেই, চোখ লাল হয়ে আসে।


শতাব্দী পার করে তবু আমাদের এই চলে যেতে থাকা, চলে যেতে যেতে দেখা, লাইন দিয়ে চলে যাচ্ছে মানুষেরা। আমাদের মানুষেরা। এতে কোনও রহস্য নেই। শুধু থেকে গেছে সবুজ ঘাস, ঝাঁকড়া গাছ, ব্রাউন কটেজ, তাতে সাদা সাদা পর্দা লাগানো জানলা, ড্রয়িংখাতার মত নীল আকাশ। অনেক দূরের এই সন্ধ্যেবেলায় আজ মনে হচ্ছে, কি ভীষণ রহস্যময় সেই সব থেকে যাওয়া!

Of Pines, Electronics, and Powerful Ideas: A Season of Hard Fun

It’s been a therapeutic few months in this village of ours. A therapy for all the wounded souls of the difficult times.

And this is, indeed, the darkest of times – the time of extreme capitalism, extreme violence and communalism, and extreme centralization of power. You either come out of it as the oppressor finding refuge in possessions and privilege, only to suffocate yourself in your own power; or you become the oppressed fatalistically accepting your powerlessness. You are a victim of a bigger puzzle either way. But what does an alternative learning space in a far-away village have to do with all of it, one may ask. The answer to that is: everything. This may come as a surprise (although it really really shouldn’t), but the sole purpose of education was to enable learners question the world more politically and more critically than ever. We have been taught to think and act otherwise by the mainstream system of education, because schooling the society in a way it is schooled now helps the oppressors. So, if you are constructing a learning space, and you are calling it an alternative to something you know for certain is disempowering, then the core purpose of the space should be to empower the powerless. And as Paulo Freire puts it, you as an educator in that space have a duty of not being neutral, rather to be deeply political (in the broader sense of the term as having to do with the power relationships).

In Rakkar, in the ecosystem that we have created for the young learners of the village, we have been living just that. We have exponentially evolved as a collective since the time of the last article on this blog. Long story short: I found a house in the middle of the village with a space dedicated to children, moved in, gained a home out of that house, and in the host was found a friend who has been a partner in my adventures ever since. We almost started living together with about fifteen kids from the neighborhood, and the madness followed.

Learnings in Leavings, and the Man who Showed it to Us:

Rakkar has a community of people who were once shepherds and had a transhumant lifestyle: they would go up on the mountains from time to time with the herd of sheep and cattle, and would live on the little houses that they owned higher up, and would come back to their mud houses in the village when the time would come. Some are still the same wanderers, but only a few survived the “choices” globalization and “rural development” forced upon them. From what I gathered from my random conversations with the villagers on local tea shops, last few decades have changed their way of being, and forcefully. Each of the families was gifted some land and was instructed to build a permanent shelter on that land they were provided with, and thus the entire population was legally discouraged to continue with their semi-nomadic life. Desperately looking for alternative sources of survival – some learned their ways to set up small-sized businesses and shops, some picked up farming, some went and joined the army, some drowned their days with alcohol and other chemical means of escape. All those who wander are not lost perhaps, but what happens when a system with too much power starts to design your paths as wanderers? You are forced to lose your way in the middle of a concrete jungle created in the name of rural development. It’s just another policy taken by the powerful –  it does not really care if the fields get horrendously damaged by the concretization of the water canals, or if the common people uprooted from their organic way of living come out of it as refugees in their very own habitat – it’s a scheme that comes with a cost, and it costs the lives of the people it was supposedly created for, because that is apparently how it works.


2016-05-26They all remained wanderers at the core of their hearts. They all still feel inseparable from the nature and its wildness. They did not forget. I don’t think we ever forget the lives we leave, or we ever completely leave for that matter. As Pedagogy of Hope sees it: no one leaves his or her world without being transfixed by its roots, or with a vacuum for a soul; we carry with us the memory of many fabrics, a self soaked in our history, our culture. Our interactions with the kids started with finding life in leavings, in forgotten and abandoned things. It wasn’t a conscious choice of mine, there was no syllabus to follow, but this activity emerged from our interactions in the most organic way possible. We would collect dead roots of trees and random dry twigs we stumbled upon, and would try to see what the branchings looked like in a different world: sometimes it would look like a bird, sometimes a person, sometimes a soul of a tree. Before we could realize, we had an entire wall full of structures made of discarded tree roots and its branches – each of the structures had their own story, and that story would vary from one child to another. 2016-05-26-2Many years ago, Abanindranath Tagore coined a term for this particular form of art he practiced:  Katum Kutum (কাটুম কুটুম), Katum (কাটুম) means structure or form and Kutum (কুটুম) means relatives, and the sculptures which were made from driftwood or discarded and left found tree roots as well as its branches are alike to our relatives. I don’t think the kids saw it as art though, they were just having fun, a kind of fun that had imagination and work involved, but fun nonetheless.
They also worked with two sources of green light situated at a distance from one another, and the structures hanging on the wall would now have two shadows both interacting with other such shadows from the wall full of structures hanging. It would then give birth to a single story that each individual structure was a part of. On the first exhibition that we hosted at our place, an artist friend looked at it and said, “you know, this installation could be in a Morden Art museum of a foreign country and would totally fit in to their sense of abstraction as well”. But that’s the thing, the kids did not see it as abstraction at all, or better put, not as an abstraction that was not real enough to perceive it as it was. When you try to explain them the biology of plants or the laws of light with black and white textbooks in a closed classroom, that right there becomes abstract to them. Because then you’re expecting them to learn things out of nothing, nothing that has a physical existence that they can touch and feel and trust. It’s grossly unfair.


 It is through these experiences of touch and feel that we landed up at the YouTube channel of Arvind Gupta. I was introduced to Arvind Gupta in my childhood, many years ago, with the book Ten Little Fingers. But childhood was long gone, or maybe it wasn’t after all. Maybe I was also carrying it deep within, like the wandering souls of our shepherds, as a memory, sometimes scattered, sometimes sharp and clear. This was, however, a conscious choice to introduce them to the videos of the toys Gupta Ji makes out of trash. The choice had much to do with my personal fascination with Gupta Ji’s work, of course, but it was also more than just personal. I had a few things in mind while making that choice:  it looked like an activity that they would be able to spontaneously relate to; it was something that would be financially reasonable to go on with for a significant period of time, and not just for us who are the primary operators of the project, but for the kids themselves, because it was also a way of learning that is most easy to go back to even when a kid is back home from our space; it was also very focused and very direct, and it had to be, because otherwise it would have the potential to remain as a hobby just, it takes a larger commitment to make an activity your life. But above everything, this activity serves a bigger purpose, a purpose that strives to fix the continuous damage done to the nature by the mankind. And this is what stirred their young minds the most. These are beings who feel inherently so close to the nature – here was a chance to transform that personal motivation to a bigger cause – and through that transformation was to happen the empowerment of silenced ideas.

 Bachhon Ka Avishkar, and the Power of Emerging Ideas:

Three months have passed, and we now have a laboratory of young makers creating everything from water filters to electric generator, all out of trash items. They call this activity of theirs as “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”, meaning the inventions of the children. It never stops at that but, they always look for bigger goals to work for through this activity of theirs. In March, we were climbing trees, and realized it would be far more exciting to live on a tree branch as the land looked kind of boring from up there. DSC_0109So they immediately wanted to build a tree house: and it wasn’t just an epiphany! No, they came back, got divided into teams: teams for design, painting, documentation, collecting materials, and so on. The design team started training themselves with design tutorials from the Internet, the documentation team would update their progress on their GitHub repository, and so on. This is exactly what I meant when on the last article I talked about finding a bridge between computers and their every day lives. Never for a moment they thought learning to use the Internet for this group project was a foreign task, because they knew exactly why they were using the machine. Empowerment often means just that, to be able to choose for yourself what you think is necessary. A computer, in these circumstances, does not remain an alien of a machine that you should learn because someone is instructing you to do so; but becomes a tool you choose to use in order to make your work easier. It becomes a friend who helps, a friend you learn from, and eventually, a friend you are not afraid of challenging.

It is interesting to see how they really saw their positions as users of the Internet. And so when they wanted a website of their own they knew exactly why they thought it was necessary, and it was pretty straightforward: हम रक्कड़ के बच्चे कूड़े कचड़े से खिलौने बनाते हैं, हमें जानकारी देना चाहिए (we are the kids of Rakkar, we collect all the trash from the neighborhood, and make toys out of them; we should inform the world about our cause). This is an amazing gift children are born with, they are strangely capable of always articulating complicated things in the most simplest ways possible. They really know their ways to tame the few words they are familiar with. All you have to do is to communicate with them in the most genuine way you know of communication, and they’ll take care of the rest. When Finnu, 13, started to design the website on a whiteboard, we never for a moment questioned his ability to do it. I asked him whether he would be interested in making a website, in the same spontaneous way they ask me if I would like to join them in their work in the fields. It’s really simple, actually: I wouldn’t know how to cut the wheat from the fields, he wouldn’t immediately know how to make an web application, but we believed we could both learn if we helped each other through the process of learning. The task of a learning space is to construct that belief in the participating minds. To make things seem easier than they actually are does not always mean to delude a learner, sometimes it also means that it is now my responsibility as a mentor to make computing seem as easy and as organic to you as gardening.

12905023_933452926773538_1489182403_n The set of wireframes Finnu created in a few hours was pure perfection: he spelled website as “wepside”, but he did create what engineering students don’t learn to create until they are stabbed with a college project. Unlike college students desperately trying to maintain grades, Finnu’s motivation to make it happen was to express his powerful idea of creating a platform that would serve the purpose of the collective he was a part of. He did really think about the requirements of the collective: from keeping a donate button, to storing all the necessary data about the dogs of Rakkar (such as, their birthdays, who all they have bitten, and so on), he had many ideas for his creation to become most useful to a bigger cause he felt very passionately about.

We now have a website and a YouTube channel that all the kids have put much thoughts into: they upload little demonstrations of the toys they create and discuss the science behind those creations. One incident that is totally worth sharing in this context, is how they dealt with maintaining anonymity on their website. They are now kind of aware of the userbase of the Internet, but only kind of. They are aware of a vast set of people out there who are also users of the Internet but their way of using it is different from the way they themselves have been using it. So they wouldn’t trust this world full of strangers just like that. They didn’t want their names to be publicly posted as authors on the website. But it turned out that even if you find a way to hide the author names, it is not too hard to find out the author-page if you really know your way. So, Vicky looked at the error message we ran into, and suggested that we should instead just have a common account that we would all have the access to, and that way we would be able to protect the identities with another layer of anonymity.

Stories We are Made of, and The Pedagogy of Hard Fun

 But young kids from a little village in the mountains, who do not speak English and understand very little of it, discussing anonymity and privacy issues is not magic. It’s not fiction either. It is just as real as our digital reality is becoming everyday. And it has to be, as the crisis also is as “digital” as it gets. When I first arrived here (when there was no legal hint of Aadhar card being mandatory as a proof of identity), all the families from this village were forced (and in all kinds of brutal ways) to enroll for Aadhar cards (the new UID deal that is murdering the right to privacy for Indian citizen), as they were informed by the local authorities that Aadhar was “only” mandatory if they wanted to get a ration card. It does not end there, of course. A village that is a growing victim of forced development is also equally a victim of the skewed politics of the present day Internet.


 Having said that, these young children of our village are not learning the digital world just in order to pose as rebels against the threats caused by the digital world itself. Not only the threats are too abstract to fathom but also a computer itself (and Internet more so) is still perceived as a privilege in their everyday reality. Ditto with the schooling system and education. It’s an element of worship in the lives of the parents in this village. Funny how privilege works, but to demand a revolution against the education system from a community like this just because you are aware of the fallacies of it, would be to impose your privileged point of view on a village you were a foreigner to.


Also, I feel it is anyway too volatile (not to mention, selfish) a motivation for learning:  learning should not happen with the sole motivation of defeating an idea that you personally (or even politically) believe is flawed (unless I guess one is living in a reality of such extreme political nightmare where a system plans on murdering you everyday, where learning to function with a pistol then becomes a question of basic survival). That is just not powerful. And if you think about it, it is actually no less institutionalized. From the moment you surrender to the real world – the school system you are a student of, the family structure you belong to, the society you are a part of, and the government you are ruled by (and in that exact sequence) – would want you to see the world selfishly, everyday a little bit more, because a society made of selfish families schooled in favor of a ruling machine helps the authority win. An alternative to that system, should relentlessly work toward rejecting that selfishness (often by identifying one’s own self as a product of the construct itself and then questioning that, to start with) first, and questioning the institution will inevitably follow. But if you start with the motivation to defeat the institution first, not only that is too detached from the reality of a community like this, but also it has this huge risk of turning into its own opposite.


Shyam, 14, is slightly older than the other kids at our place, he is also slightly more informed than the others. He knows about ISIS. He also seemed to believe that all Pakistanis were terrorists and hence should all die and disappear. I asked him what made him think so and whether he ever met a Pakistani in his life. He said, no, and then added that he did not even know where Pakistan was in the world map. So we looked at that first, and somehow ended up looking at Pakistani coins. He really liked a coin he found out through google image search, so he wanted to make it. We agreed on making it with cardboard and silver colored paper. This ended up being a strangely powerful exercise, because after he was done, he looked at this little creation of his with genuine contentment and pure appreciation. I jokingly remarked: so you at least like something of the nation that you so passionately hate.

A page from the graphic novel one of our young friends is creating

His feelings toward it was conflicted, I could sense. So we started looking up more stories, looked at beautiful structures from the land of Pakistan, listened to Ghazals, started reading literature from the time of partition, and so on. It was almost evening when it was time for him to leave. His eyes seemed lost: they were not lost in confusion anymore but it seemed like they were wandering in the streets of a foreign country that suddenly also seemed strangely familiar. Then after a while they were back, he looked straight at me with those eyes which now resembled a person who just discovered something very precious. “दीदी”, he said, “एक भारतीय फ़ौजी का दुःख दर्द, बॉर्डर के उसपार का एक पाकिस्तानी फ़ौजी से अच्छा कौन समझता है, है ना?” (Didi, who knows more about the despair of an Indian soldier, than the Pakistani soldier across the border sharing the same despair as that of his supposed enemy on the other side?) I did not know the answer to it, or maybe I could see that he was not expecting an answer from me at all. He further exclaimed, “मतलब वह दोनों तो soulmates हैं!” (So that means, they are basically soulmates!). Months later, he now really wants to learn Urdu simply because he finds it beautiful.

No, I am not prescribing an overnight cure for Islamophobia. I am not even sure if that is fully cured in his young mind yet. He would be told exactly otherwise in several other situations in his life afterwards, this battle is not an easy one. But more importantly, even this change did not happen overnight. Shyam first came to us as a big bully who used to beat up the younger kids. The first day he entered our place, I asked him to break a wire for us, you know, very casually, because we needed it for something. He couldn’t refuse, because that would hurt his masculinity. He broke one, and looked at me. I asked him to keep breaking. He questioned, why. I said I didn’t know but wires were hard to break and one would need muscles to break it, and so if he would kindly help us with it while he was there. He couldn’t refuse again. He was in the middle of the room breaking wires, while the kids surrounding him were all engrossed in making many different things. There was absolutely no pressure on him to think of anything he would also want to make. There was no assumption but, nor was a rejection to his extreme personality based on false assumptions. And he did, he did start to make things with the wires he broke with his own hands. Months later, he is the only child with whom I was able to read the book “Letter to a Teacher, by the School of Barbaina”, and the whole of it.

Did I see him changing into this wonderfully sensitive child he is today? I don’t remember. I probably did not, because I don’t usually believe in foreseeing things that are not really relevant. However, I do see this inherent potential in disobedient kids – the ones that you casually throw into the label of “problem child”, and then beat the hell out of them to forcefully make them obey your authority as parents, teachers, instructors, and rulers. But they are born fearless and curious, they lack the naivety of obedience perhaps. Why is that necessarily so bad a quality that you immediately want to reject it instead of investing some time to see it through? Shyams are different. They always want to feel the power they hold as individuals. The moment you start beating them up or immediately lecturing them on morality, they react, they react by questioning you and your authority. But you wouldn’t feel the need to answer to a child with such audacity, and that rejection would then push him to the ultimate trap. The trap of finding pleasure and pride in being powerful, and looking for that power in bullying over someone inferior. Shyams are different, and they could be helped in seeing the world in a way where they would feel empowered as critical learners and committed doers; they would know that to feel the power they think they deserve can, and should, come without having to feel the power over someone (or a specific class) in particular. But instead, their differences are pushed to a point of no return, because you were too impatient to see through their quality and too busy in applying your own control.


Quite recently, Kusum, a young girl of age 12, was being casually (but, not so casually) mocked by a group of three boys of the group. We observed that it was getting uglier, and so we tried to sit and talk with the boys. After trying the same for three times, I decided to tone up a little bit, and very clearly stated: but this is not okay, and you should realize that. Mocking someone, any person who you consider weak just because he/she is different from you, is not just wrong it is sometimes criminal. Of course you wouldn’t know, but it is time you feel ashamed of what just happened. And you should also know that it is perfectly okay to feel ashamed, in fact it is way more powerful an act than catcalling a girl. The conversation got more intense, when one of them slowly uttered with a sad voice almost as if he was talking to himself: “पहले ना मैं बहुत बत्तमीज़ हुआ करता था।” (I used to be more of a brat earlier, you know). I have never heard a confession so powerful.


Later that night, Kusum wrote an entire play, which she then directed to the same group of boys the very next day. But, not once there was a careless effort to feel the power back over the group of boys she lost her power to, the day before. Days later they all went and performed the play written by her, and together, in front of a full crowd. Some forgot their lines, some would accidentally end up breaking their costume on stage, but nothing stopped them from conquering the stage like steady performers. Because they didn’t care if they failed, it was enough for them that they did it. And they felt secure enough to fail, and fail better. They knew no matter how much they embarrass themselves up on that stage, they wouldn’t be failing us, their friends and supporters.

And that, right there, is pathetically lacking from our system (social and education). It takes endless empathy to provide security, and legitimate security, to the vulnerable. We all deserve a land where it shall be okay to fail, it shall be a moment of appreciation when someone confesses their weakness, and a hug will be offered to every individual who feels ashamed of a wrong that was committed by oneself.

Ours is not a playhouse for kids, it’s not an easy place. We have been doing this activity, and living this life as a collective for three continuous months without a gap of even a day. It is very, very intense an engagement. It’s also fun. It’s fun in spite of being very very hard. When Seymour Papert coined the term “Hard Fun” he also talked about being devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline.

On that note, ours is also a very focused and very carefully structured participation. But on the other hand, this place is only as hard as the participants would want to make it, only as ordered as the children would want it to be. Because you are choosing it, all of it, even the order with which you are controlling your own chaos. And that’s empowering. A severe engagement of 180 days also means, all of them, also made the same choice of bringing this order in their chaotic little lives everyday. They could have left. Our doors have remained as open to the ones who would want to leave as it was to the ones who wished to come. But they didn’t leave. They never missed a day also. Because unlike everywhere else, here, they had the freedom to choose.

Abstract as a Luxury, and other Learnings

Poster of the first ever exhibition of “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”

They also always came back because they knew what exactly they were coming back to. Or maybe they never really left the activity for the last few months, and I don’t think they are going to leave anytime soon. They were not coming back to an “alternative learning space”, no, they came back to all the trash they so passionately collected, they came back to the activity of transforming all things discarded into their wonderful inventions. There was not a single chance for any abstraction to take anything away from this simple reality of theirs: we are the kids of Rakkar; we make toys from trash.

Abstract is a kind of reality that we have the privilege to indulge in perhaps. For our villagers, however, it is too much of a luxury; it’s not that they are incapable of perceiving an abstract idea in their own ways, but they would not want to do it at all. Their reality never had a place for luxuries, and it is incredibly unfair to demand one from them. But they have complete rights to know where exactly they are sending their children off to, they all have great potential to participate in that activity themselves – but the parents for whom it is of endless privilege to be able to send their kids to a school, an “alternative learning space” means nothing useful. And then you spend six sentences to explain the meaning and importance of an “alternative learning space” in a language you are comfortable communicating in, but before even knowing, you would be losing a potential collaborator just because you sounded too distant. Not just it’s a loss, it is also terribly unfair. As Ivan Illich puts it, “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”

In fact, the way of functioning in a village you have to some extent invaded with your ideas should be very consciously subtle. My present efforts are to make the activities sufficiently more significant than my own presence in it. One way of approaching it is to subtly transfer the power I hold as a primary operator of this activity to the larger community. And that cannot just happen verbally. If sustaining this activity is a concern then I believe that it also a part of our responsibility to make the villagers feel like an equal participant in this adventure of ours, and the immediate community of villagers would feel empowered enough to sustain it on its own with occasional support from outsiders like us. So every afternoon, we started going to shops, streets, public places, and often to people’s houses – used the trash items they provide us with to make everything that inspires us as makers, from hand puppets to electric generators.


DSC_0101The idea was never to create a learning space just, but it has been more about constructing an ecosystem for learners. An ecosystem that does not reduce the value of the learners to their immediate identities, and moreover empowers them to question everything including the ecosystem itself. We had an exhibition recently at the community hall in the  village. It was the brightest day I can remember from the recent past – almost fifty children from all over the village came and they all looked like sunshine. I remember looking at their eyes. They were all overflowing with such genuine happiness, that it pained. It pained because it reminded me of millions of other children of this world who deserved no less, but we failed them, we failed them as humans, silenced them before they even learned to speak. What is more concerning is, that we have imposed on them our own authoritarian ways of seeing the world. We teach them history of human struggle as fairytales, making sure that they never feel inspired to live a life of commitment to a cause bigger than their own survival. We teach them Geography as law, so that when the Government decides to redraw the entire geography of our country – with no regards whatsoever to communities, the wildlife, or the farmers concerned – not a word of dissent shall be spoken. We teach them Science as Religion, we teach them always to worship the superior, barring them from questioning the same. We just teach them.

But let’s not. Let’s not be teachers to silenced students anymore. Let’s lose our power as the ultimate authority of knowledge, it would only humanize us. And let’s imagine an ecosystem where – we are all learners, regardless of our age, class, gender, race, and caste – committed to a life with purpose beyond our own selfish survival and a life of questioning the world as we learn from it.


In Rakkar, that has been our commitment.


Names of the characters mentioned in this article are used fictitiously in order to respect the privacy of the people involved.